You're familiar with the cost and convenience benefits of using VoIP technology for your small business' telephone needs, either instead of or in conjunction with traditional PSTN phone lines. But once you've decided to take the plunge, you still have more decisions to make.
Before settling on a VoIP provider, PBX, and/or IP phone systems, you need to think about the feature set that you need. If your business is small, you might think all you need are basic features such as call forwarding, voice mail, three-way calling, etc.
However, small businesses can benefit from some of the more advanced available feature sets in unique ways. In fact, the right set of features can make your small business look much bigger in the eyes of your customers (and potential customers), partners, vendors, and others with whom you do business over the phone.
Let's explore some of the sophisticated VoIP features that can make a small business appear to be a larger, highly professional organization. Here are the top five features I would look for.
An extension of voice mail, auto attendant is a basic feature of high-end IP phone systems and IP PBX units. For example, the Auto Attendant feature in the popular Asterisk open source IP PBX lets you play music or prerecorded messages to customers on hold, and it uses a voice mail "tree" that supports directories by department, employee, or extension.
In addition, auto attendant software can answer incoming calls to a central number and route those calls based on the caller's need. For example, the caller can choose to route the call to the sales department, billing department, accounts receivable, etc. In a small organization, one person or department may perform all of these functions, and the call may end up at the same extension for multiple choices—but callers don't know that, and your organization appears to have more employees than it really does.
Find Me, Follow Me
Another popular feature is Find Me, Follow Me (FMFM). This feature allows employees to move around, either within the organization or outside it, and still receive calls as if they're sitting at their desks. Workers telecommuting from home, executives in hotel rooms on the road, technicians out on a job site—they can all get their calls no matter where they are.
You can configure the system so that when a call comes in for an employee, the desk phone rings first, then the employee's cell phone, then his or her home phone, until the system finds the employee. Or the employee can use the Follow Me functionality to define the phone number of the location where he or she will be and have all calls routed there.
With this feature, employees have more flexibility, and customers are less likely to end up talking to voice mail instead of the person they're trying to call. Different vendors may use different terms for FMFM, including call hunting or advanced forwarding.
This is an extension of the FMFM functionality. Rather than passively depending on users to set up locations where they expect to be, the Presence feature can actually track them down. For example, the system can detect that a user logged onto his or her e-mail account from a computer in the accounting department or checked voice mail messages from a phone at the reception area, and it can then extrapolate from that where the user is.
A presence system also allows you to create rules about how to handle calls based on the user's location. For example, you can configure it not to ring your cell phone when you're in the CEO's office.
A good VoIP system will support audio (and perhaps video) conferencing. High-fidelity wideband VoIP conference phones allow multiple persons at a conference table to participate in a VoIP conversation from different distances, speaking at a normal volume.
You can also tie conferencing functionality into other IP collaboration applications, so that during the conference call, participants can exchange files, synchronize calendars, share presentations, and even see one another's computer desktops. Such functionality is called unified communications.
Many companies are offering enterprise-level unified communications solutions. Microsoft's entry into the market is its Office Communications Server 2007 (OCS), which provides for SIP-based calling, presence-based VoIP call management, instant messaging, and audio, video, and Web-based conferencing.
The basis of unified communications is the convergence of different technologies to work together. The same communications system can handle phone calls, voice mail, e-mail, instant messages, video conferences, faxes, and other types of communications, and different applications are aware of one another. For example, if you're in a location where you're unable to receive a phone call, the system can notify you via instant message that someone is trying to reach you.
Technology has made it easier for small businesses with small budgets to compete with larger ones—by creating a Web presence, using e-mail, and now with VoIP. Not only can VoIP provide a way for your small business to afford the long-distance calls and 800 numbers that were once reasonable only for larger organizations, but now you can use the advanced features of VoIP phones and IP PBX units to give callers the kind of experience once associated only with large companies.
In addition to these five features, VoIP services offer many features that you don't routinely get with traditional phone service, including simultaneous ring, do not disturb, virtual phone numbers, and more. For example, Outlook integration allows you to "click to dial" Outlook contacts and automatically create Outlook journal entries for the calls you make and/or receive.
As VoIP becomes more ubiquitous in the workplace, it's likely that the differences between telephony features available to small and large businesses will fade even more.
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Deb Shinder is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. She currently specializes in security issues and Microsoft products, and she has received Microsoft's Most Valuable Professional (MVP) status in Windows Server Security.
Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.